Angel Valentine sat at her kitchen table and sipped her tea. It was late, but she wasn’t tired. The small, shabby kitchen was chilly, but she was wearing a heavy robe over her sheer nightgown.

People often commented that she didn’t look like she belonged here, but this house was hers, the first house she had ever owned, and she felt very comfortable here.

When her lover, Larry, was away, she would sometimes wait up for Stephanie to come in from her nightly patrols. Not that she thought that one night the young superhero might not come home (she didn’t allow herself to think that), but it was interesting to hear about her various adventures, including the many nights when she had nothing more to do than give tourists directions.

Angel sipped her tea and looked at the newspaper. The U-town paper was, she thought, the world’s most ambitious small-town newspaper.

It had a miniscule budget, no photographs, and writers and editors with widely divergent amounts of talent and skill.

But they tried to cover the world. With indifferent success, to be sure, but the ambition itself made it enjoyable to read.

She heard the back door open. Stephanie always went in and out that way when she was in costume, to preserve her secret identity. She poked her head into the kitchen, pulling off her mask.

“Hi,” she said.

“Welcome home. Was it awful out? I heard the rain and thought about you.”

“Pretty bad. I’m soaked through.”

“Come and have some tea. It will warm you up.”

“I’d love to, but I have got to get out of this costume and take a bath. I feel all itchy from being wet for so long.”

Angel smiled. “Go on up and get ready for your bath. I’ll make some hot chocolate and bring it to you.”

Stephanie smiled. “That will be great, thanks. And I do have some stories to tell you.”

Angel made the hot chocolate and carried it upstairs. She had been taking her time, because she knew that Stephanie was very modest. This way, she could get safely into the tub before Angel appeared.

She knocked on the half-open door to the bathroom. “Okay to come in?”

Stephanie laughed. “Am I as bad as all that? Come on in.” Angel nudged the door open with her toe and went in. The room was steamy, but it was pleasantly warm compared to the rest of the house.

Stephanie was in the bathtub, and she’d pulled the shower curtain around for modesty. Angel put one mug on the edge of the tub and she sat on the toilet, placing the other mug on the laundry hamper. “So,” she said, “you had an exciting evening?”

Stephanie sighed. “Yes. I was feeling pretty good about it, but now that I have the chance to think… There was a murder, and I was working with Jan Sleet.” She glanced over for a reaction, but Angel was impassive, sipping her hot chocolate. “She was really excited, looking for clues and all, and it was interesting, but as I walked home I started thinking…”

She was quite low in the tub, and all Angel could see was the top of her head and her hand that held the mug. But her brow was definitely furrowed.

“Miss Sleet is a noted amateur detective,” Angel observed after a moment. “To be blunt, if there aren’t any mysteries for her to solve, then she’s not that. You were brought up to be a sheriff in a small town someday. Your identity doesn’t depend on there being crime – and in fact you’re judged a success if there isn’t any.”

Stephanie laughed. “You’ve thought this through a lot more than I have.”

“One of the advantages of being older and wiser, child.”

Stephanie snorted, spilling a little hot chocolate into the bathwater. “Gee, thanks,” she said. “So, let me tell you about the case.”

She raised herself up a little bit in the water hoping it wasn’t too obvious that she was watching Angel’s reactions.

Which were, as usual, almost impossible to read.

The older woman was tall and slender, with pale skin and long, silver hair. Stephanie had never seen her wear any item of clothing that wasn’t white. As far as Stephanie could tell, she never wore makeup, and she never wore jewelry. And her face, which was beautiful, never gave very much away.

By the time Stephanie was done with her story, they had both finished their hot chocolate, the bathwater was lukewarm, and Angel was looking thoughtful.

“So,” she said slowly, “do they have any suspects? Other than you, I mean?”

Stephanie sighed. “I’ve been telling myself that I’m not really a suspect, but of course I am.” She was trying to figure out how to ask Angel to leave so she could get out of the tub without making a spectacle of herself, but then Angel stood up and picked up the empty mugs.

“I know what Larry would say,” she said. She shifted into a faultless imitation of her lover’s laconic growl. “‘The kid sucks with knives. She’d never kill anybody with a knife.”

Stephanie laughed as Angel left the room. She got out of the tub, suddenly very cold, and quickly wrapped herself up in a towel. She’d made a joke out of it, but she was really worried about being accused of murdering her boss. She’d had nightmares as a young girl about being accused of things that she hadn’t done.

She zipped across the hall, turned off her bedroom light, and dived under the covers.

What really scared her, which she would never have admitted to Angel (and certainly not to Larry), was the idea of having to give up being Stevie One. In comic books, sometimes the superheroes were not friendly with the cops, or people even thought they were criminals, but she didn’t want to work that way. But she couldn’t go on being U-town’s protector if she was accused of murder.

Well, she supposed she would continue that way, if she had to, but she knew there was no way she’d be able to escape Jan Sleet. She had been in awe of the detective before, but even so she had been shocked that it had taken her less than a minute to figure out that Stephanie had broken Mr. Drenkenson’s nose.

Jan Sleet approached Angel Valentine’s small, shabby brownstone. She had been there before, and she told herself that it was silly to be nervous about this. Marshall had sensed that she wanted to do this by herself and had begged off, saying that he had a meeting he had to go to.

She climbed the three stone steps to the front stoop and rang the bell. After a moment, the door opened and Angel looked at her. The foyer was one step up from the outside landing, so Angel was looking down on the detective, though the two women were almost exactly the same height.

Angel was wearing a white blouse with a wide collar, with a white leather vest over it, and white slacks. The detective was wearing a dark charcoal pinstripe suit.

“Miss Sleet,” Angel said. “If you’re looking for Mr. Gerard or Stephanie, they’re both out.”

“No, Miss Valentine, I’m here to see you. May I come in?” Angel moved aside and the detective used her cane to get up onto the high step. “Stephanie is at the pet store, of course,” Jan said, “taking care of things in the absence of the owner, who was murdered last night. Larry Gerard is, from what I understand, out of town.”

Angel smiled as she led the detective down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. “I am sorry, Miss Sleet, if I sounded brusque. I gather from what Stephanie told me last night that she is a suspect in this murder, and I confess I feel protective about her.”

“Understandable. And, I confess, when there’s been a murder, people don’t always view my arrival with unalloyed pleasure.”

They entered the small kitchen. “Would you like some coffee?” Angel asked.

The detective nodded. She used her cane to lower herself into one of the chairs. “I would love some. Thank you.”

As Angel poured the coffee, she asked, “Would it appear suspicious if I asked why you’re here?”

Jan shook her head, smiling. “It would be more likely to appear suspicious if you didn’t. Thank you,” she added as Angel placed a mug and an ashtray in front of her. Angel took her own mug to the other side of the table and sat down.

Jan sipped her coffee and brought out her cigarette case. “I am here to ask about Larry Gerard.”

“Who is, as you said, out of town. Why are you asking about him?”

“To be blunt, he is not unfamiliar with the tools of violence, and it seems that he regards our young friend in a (shall we say) fatherly way–”

Angel frowned. “I do hope you are not implying–”

Jan looked almost apologetic. “I am actually trying quite carefully to avoid implying anything. But it is curiously difficult to talk about a relationship – even an entirely appropriate relationship – between an older man and a teenage girl without it sounding like something sordid is being suggested.”

Angel laughed suddenly. “It is, isn’t it? What do you want to know?”

“I’d most like to get some verifiable idea of where Mr. Gerard is. Or where he was yesterday.”

“I don’t know. He said he would be gone for a few days. I’m not a wife; I don’t pry.”

“I…” the detective began, but then she stopped. She smiled. “Well done. As a wife, I was about to protest what you just said, but of course I am also someone who pries. Which I was doing long before I even thought of getting married. Anyway, do you know when he is scheduled to return?”

“Today or tomorrow, I believe. However, I am wondering why you’re asking these questions. Do you really think Larry murdered Stephanie’s boss, a man who, as far as I know, he never even met?”

“It is unlikely, but in the early stages of an investigation I don’t like to rule anything out. It is possible that Mr. Gerard, enraged by Mr. Drenkenson’s treatment of Stephanie, decided to act.”

Angel smiled, sipping her coffee. “You seem to be thinking of a Larry Gerard who is substantially more chivalrous than the one who lives here.”

“Wouldn’t he step in to defend Stephanie if she needed it?”

“If she was in immediate danger of losing her life? Yes, I think he probably would, but that is not the scenario you’re describing.” She looked up, with a direct glance which gave the idea that she had made a decision to talk about something that she wasn’t sure should be revealed.

“He’s been training her, since she arrived here in U-town. As you say… he has some expertise with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. His idea of helping Stephanie is to train her and make her stronger, not to protect her himself. That isn’t… It’s not how he deals with things.”

“Would he take up weapons to protect you?”

Her expression was blank, but Jan had the idea she was suppressing a smile. “I imagine he might, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where he would have to.”

one night at the quarter (part two)

Katherine was glad Daphne wasn’t there. She never came to see the band, in rehearsal or at gigs – dogs have sensitive hearing and tend not to like loud music.

Katherine sipped her beer and lit a cigarette. She kept thinking that somewhere, in one of her textbooks, she’d encounter an explanation for Daphne, but so far she hadn’t. But, of course, Daphne wasn’t actually crazy.

Katherine hadn’t been sure, at first, but now she was. Not that she understood Daphne, but she knew that she didn’t really think she was a dog. And neither did Pete. And they definitely weren’t sleeping together. In fact, there were times when it seemed like Pete was the only person Daphne wasn’t sleeping with.

It had taken a while, though, for Katherine to really believe that Pete and Daphne were not, and never had been, lovers. They were both straight (well, Daphne clearly went both ways), but they had settled into a weird sort of nonsexual intimacy that Katherine was pretty sure wouldn’t show up in any of her textbooks.

It was a common sight in the evenings for Pete to be reading, or drawing his comics, or practicing his bass, with Daphne curled up at his feet, sometimes reading a book of her own. Sometimes she sat up and leaned against his leg, and he patted or stroked her head, apparently not even aware that he was doing it.

A couple of times, when she’d been upset, she’d even climbed into his lap to be comforted, and Katherine had to work to keep a straight face, since Daphne was larger than Pete and looked like she might crush him.

Of course, Katherine and Pete were also good friends, and they certainly had no sexual tension, but they were somewhat more proper with each other.

One time, when Katherine had been tense, Pete had offered to give her a back rub. Remembering high school, she’d wondered if this was going to be a pass, but he’d been so unsatisfactory at massage that Daphne had come over and head-butted him away so that she could climb up on Katherine’s back and walk around on all fours, which had been one of the most relaxing and pleasurable physical experiences of Katherine’s life.

part five: date night

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